Sheldon Keefe met with the media after practice on Thursday to discuss the season-opening win over the Canadiens, the challenge against the Senators in this weekend’s back-to-back, Auston Matthews’ role on the penalty kill, the cross-check abuse withstood by Matthews in front of the net vs. Montreal, and managing Joe Thornton’s minutes.
After a chance to review the game last night, what did you like and dislike about the victory over the Habs? What do you want to change going forward?
Keefe: It is a long list both on the positive side and the negative side. The reality is, you go into the game and you’re not sure how it is going to go just because you have to play another opponent. That brings a whole different set of challenges that is really difficult to replicate in a practice or the scrimmages that we have had.
There are things that we definitely want to do better. I am not going to get into specifics of it. With the nature of it being so early in the season, what was an issue last night may not be an issue tomorrow, and something else might pop up.
That is just kind of the way that it goes. I don’t know if that is going to change throughout the season. That is kind of the ebb and flow of things, but we are looking for a level of consistency with our effort and our physicality and our competitiveness — all of those kinds of things.
We had some real positive steps there, and in some spots in the game, I thought we had more to give in that area. That is what we spent our focus on today: talking about that, and just a few little tactical things as we continue to work at our systems stuff on the ice.
Will you travel with all of the players on the reserve squad to Ottawa, and do you anticipate mixing them in with the back-to-back?
Keefe: We will travel with all of them. In terms of how I will handle the back-to-back: We will take it a game at a time. We are not expected to make any changes going into tomorrow’s game.
What did you make of Ottawa’s offseason? Do you think that this rivalry will be heated up, especially with the offseason changes? They’re tougher and won’t want to get pushed around.
Keefe: I think the rivalry certainly will heat up. The toughness is one thing, but they’re a team that is going to get better every single day as an organization. The job that DJ has done there and the number of the young players they have coming, in addition to all of the players they added — it is essentially an entirely new team, for the most part.
They are going to be a lot more competitive this season. As they continue to develop, they are going to be a force in the league, I think. You look at all of their young skill — and I am very familiar with it, having coached against Belleville and seeing those players come in last year and start to contribute for them — and that in and of itself is going to heat the rivalry up, not unlike us and Montreal.
DJ Smith was saying this morning that he sees a lot of similarities with where their organization is today and where the Leafs might have been four years ago. What are your thoughts on that? You coached against him in the Soo and worked with him in Toronto.
Keefe: Playing against some of those young prospects in Belleville, there is lots of great young talent there. I think DJ does a tremendous job in communicating with players, developing players, motivating players, building a team that works together and competes hard.
Even last season, the games we played against Ottawa, to me, were some of the toughest games we played all regular season just in terms of how they played. I think there is an extra sense of urgency, perhaps, when Ottawa plays against Toronto. I felt that in the games.
Through DJ’s leadership and the way that he coaches, I think the players feed off of that. We are expecting no easy nights against the Senators this season, starting tomorrow.
Back-to-backs in past seasons for this team have been a bit of a bugaboo. This year, it is very different. You are going to be in the same city for the first time two nights in a row. How do you think that helps players with rest and recovery for the second game?
Keefe: I think it helps a great deal. We looked at it, and for the 28 road games we play this season, we fly 17 times. That is not too bad. There are added bonuses to that.
It is similar to the American league, where you bus in most places and you play the team twice, usually. It doesn’t feel like that big of a deal playing the back-to-back. We played at least one back-to-back in the bubble. A lot of other teams that played longer than we did played back-to-backs.
I think it is not as big of a deal for sure. It should help the mental hurdle with it. We are just trying to focus on every game as it comes. We are not talking about the back-to-backs being a challenge or anything like that. Every game, no matter the circumstances, we have to be ready to play.
That is not just for now. Even when things get back to normal here, we are not going to be talking too much about schedules or making excuses. We have to be ready to play every single night.
Auston Matthews took a couple of crosschecks to the back last night. Is that something the NHL needs to crack down more, or is it just kind of the price guys have to pay in today’s game?
Keefe: I don’t know if I would say it is in today’s game. I think it is very much in the fabric of the sport in terms of the competitiveness and how hard it is, especially around the nets. I think the NHL has made great strides to protect the players over the years, and they will continue to look at things along the way that can help make it safer — not just for stars like Auston but for all players of all ages for that matter.
How do you feel Auston has adjusted to the penalty-killing role in practice and in the game?
Keefe: In the practice, he has been progressing well with it. He has had limited reps. One of the biggest challenges is getting the proper reps. You want him to practice the power play, and to be able to get reps on both sides is challenging.
I don’t know how much he ended up playing on it [in the game], but he was out there for one faceoff and lost it; he had to spend some time in the zone, but he got a good clear to get out of our end. On the second one, he won a faceoff, we cleared, and he got off. From that end of it, I thought it was pretty well done.
It is going to have to be something that we continue to develop over time as we find him the reps both in practice and in the games.
Did you have an ideal number of minutes for Joe Thornton? If so, how do you manage it when the game gets going?
Keefe: I’ve obviously looked at his trends over the last number of years. 15 minutes seems to be kind of where he has been at. At the same time, I think that, with who he is playing with, he is having to do a lot less work. He is not playing center, first of all. There is a lot less ground to cover on the ice. With Auston and Mitch and the way they work and have the puck, I don’t think the minutes are as difficult for him as they maybe would have been in San Jose.
I look at yesterday, and he ended up somewhere around 17 minutes. He looked fresh and like he had legs to me all the way throughout the third period. I watched him again in practice, and he is one of the first guys out there on the ice with lots of jump in practice today.
We will continue to monitor that. I was comfortable with where it was at yesterday.
What are your feelings on being followed by the film crew from the docuseries?
Keefe: Myself, Kyle, and Brendan were involved with it, as were our players, in the discussions of how it was going to look with the NHL. I was pretty comfortable with it going in, as were our players. Since they have been here, there are a few little things where you are noticing they are around and you are aware of it — microphones, cameras, and such — but for the most part, they have really just blended in.
What a lot of people maybe don’t realize is that, even without the All or Nothing show, the NHL has cameras around a lot, and we have our own internal cameras that are around in our meetings with our team all the time. People have seen the Blueprint show and how those shows are produced. You kind of get used to it, whether it is the NHL All-Access shows, Road to the Winter Classics — a lot of people in the league have been through it before.
As we go through the season, we obviously want it to be a very special one, and we are working towards that. To have it documented and a chance for our fans and people around the world to get an opportunity to see our organization behind the scenes and get exposure to the sport, it is a great thing for everybody.